mark monday's Reviews > Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
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Feb 29, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: he-said-she-said, murdertime

this book has a lot of fans. that makes some sense. magazines are certainly very popular, and this is magazine writing at its most polished. Berendt knows how to create an atmosphere. he knows how to describe things in a style that is careful, subtle, and enfused with a deadpan but rather mischievious irony. he can certainly describe the way a rich man's house looks - so well that you could then describe it to someone else as if you've been there. characters are sketched with an expert's hand - using a combination of physical details and the telltale mannerism or two - "objective" but rather sympathetic. the mystery at the heart of this novel is an absorbing one. and the book's central figure - the maybe-a-murderer - felt like he was an iteration of the film JFK's Clay Shaw, as played in an unusually fancy style by Tommy Lee Jones. which i liked, at first.

so why only 2 stars? well, it is polished magazine writing. it does not transcend, it does not delve deep. there is the slow but increasingly annoying realization that Berendt sees our anti-hero as a kind of social peer, which for some reason really bothered me. who knows, maybe i just automatically hate the rich & parasitic. Berendt writes about a whole gallery of characters, all characterized briefly but adroitly, and eventually i realized i was reading a classier version of a tourist-eye's view of Southern grotesques, a drive-by tour of weirdos. how aggravating! who knows, maybe i just automatically empathize with the weirdos and am annoyed by the normals. and then there is the sad fact of THE LACK OF BLACK PEOPLE WHO COME ACROSS AS REAL PEOPLE. yes, they are there (several) but for the most part they are part of the gallery of grotesquerie. this novel takes place in a part of the country that has a huge black community and i found the lack of this demographic - even ones who, i suppose, Berendt would consider non-grotesque - to be perplexing and troubling.
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03/04/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-35 of 35) (35 new)

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message 1: by Mark (new)

Mark I read his 'The City of falling angels' which was a non-fiction account of Venice and the shenanigans around the fire and restoration of 'La Fenice', the Opera House. Interesting work but also interestingly, linked to your review here, peopled, as I recall, with lots of characters maybe not quite grotesque but maybe heavily crayoned rather than pencil sketched


mark monday love your phrase heavily crayoned rather than pencil sketched. perfectly said! and certainly true for Midnight.


message 3: by knig (new)

knig On the subject of southern gothic,I learned something new yesterday (OK, not DIRECTLY related). There is a subgenre called Southern Ontario gothic would you believe it.
BTW great review.


mark monday thank you! i've never heard of Southern Ontario gothic. sounds intriguing. must research!


message 5: by Megan (new)

Megan Baxter Huh! I live in Southern Ontario, and don't know of gothic stuff associated with the area!


message 6: by Terry (new)

Terry Agreed. As a Torontonian (don't hate me, I was born in Guelph!) I'm surprised never to have heard of Southern Ontario gothic...what is it?


message 8: by Megan (new)

Megan Baxter I've read most of those authors, and it would honestly never have occurred to me to call any of them "gothic."

Maybe Findley's Spadework? But Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro? Really?

Headhunter is certainly horrific in much of its atmosphere, but it's set in Toronto, not in a small-town. Same with Blind Assassin, which is not gothic at all - half of the book is a faux science fiction novel.

Maybe my personal definition of gothic is off, but I really wouldn't consider most of those books even close. Small-town realism doesn't equal gothic, to me.


message 9: by Megan (new)

Megan Baxter It sounds more to me like Findley was trying to take the piss out of Grahame Gibson, and someone ran with it. A few of Findley's books would come closest (as I said, Spadework. I haven't read Last of the Crazy People yet.)


message 10: by Petra Eggs (new)

Petra Eggs '...THE LACK OF BLACK PEOPLE."
Most books. All book covers with a person on (can't think of a single exception to this) not directed at a Black market. White people are just people. To include Black people, well that is making a statement.

My family are black, white, Guyanese Indian and (somewhere) Vietnamese. Mixed race people in literature are even less visible than black people.

Enjoyed reading your review of a book I bought because of the title but never read.


message 11: by Mark (last edited Feb 29, 2012 07:58AM) (new)

Mark Petra said 'Most books. All book covers with a person on (can't think of a single exception to this) not directed at a Black market.'

I suppose I would say that it depends what we mean by 'not directed at a black market'. Cos 'The long Song' by Andrea Levy and 'The Help' both of which I read in my local bookclub recently both had black characters on the front and I am not sure if they were particularly directed at a black market though obviously 'dealing' with the issues of racism and oppression


message 12: by Petra Eggs (new)

Petra Eggs The Help's original cover had birdies, until it was a film then it showed the black maids. My copy of the Lost Song has only leaves on the cover, no people. One of Levy's other books, Small Island, had no people on the cover until it was filmed, and then it showed black people. To me that says for the initial publication of the book, the publishers weren't prepared to put black people on the cover.


message 13: by Mark (new)

Mark Gosh that is interesting. Do you think that is because the publishers really think people wouldn't buy a book if it has black faces on the cover ?


message 14: by Petra Eggs (new)

Petra Eggs Yes. Sad isn't it?

Part of it is the publishers' marketing to a particularly group and part of it is that black people will read any book that appeals to them because so few books (outside of urban fiction) have black people on the cover, but white people rarely pick up a book with a black person on the cover. People like Maya Angelou and Caryl Phillips, major black authors, always have editions not featuring anyone on the cover!

In the case of urban fiction, it is a good thing to feature black girls because no one else is going to read it anyway, similarly with white girls and chick lit. Other books that have a less segmented audience, well, no one is going to take any chances until the characters are known through a film or tv.

There are exceptions. I've seen Gone with the Wind with a black maid in the background, but maids... well, need I say more?


Sketchbook Author (Berendt) is 3rd rate hack.


message 16: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday My family are black, white, Guyanese Indian and (somewhere) Vietnamese. Mixed race people in literature are even less visible than black people.

agree, agree, agree! i think the only genre exception to this would be science fiction, where - although i wouldn't call it commonplace - mixed-race protagonists regularly occur. with the logic being that far in the future we all may be mixed race.

as a guy who is mixed-race and bisexual, i'm sad to say that i've never seen anyone like me in any novel that i've read. ah well. i suppose i am rather a niche market, but still... i've read a ton of books in my life, and not finding a single person like me is an annoyance.

Enjoyed reading your review of a book I bought because of the title but never read.

thanks! that's also sorta funny... it was actually the title that got me to read this one. love the title, just wish it were attached to a better book.


message 17: by Mark (new)

Mark Mark said :'not finding a single person like me is an annoyance'

I always feel quite relieved not to encounter a character like me in a novel; like meeting me in real life...i would probably drive myself insane


Sketchbook I've only heard good things about you.


message 19: by Mark (new)

Mark Sketchbook wrote: "I've only heard good things about you."

you lamb


message 20: by Mark (new)

Mark but then I shall get all paranoid and wonder whose been talking about me lol


Sketchbook I get the US edition of "The Sun."


message 22: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday I always feel quite relieved not to encounter a character like me in a novel; like meeting me in real life...i would probably drive myself insane

i would tend to agree (about me - not you!) ... but my gosh, after 30+ years of reading, it would be nice if there was someone, anyone, i felt a truly personal connection to in fiction - a male character with my mixed race & orientation traits. sigh.


message 23: by Mark (new)

Mark Sketchbook wrote: "I get the US edition of "The Sun.""

damn that family


message 24: by Mark (new)

Mark mark wrote: "I always feel quite relieved not to encounter a character like me in a novel; like meeting me in real life...i would probably drive myself insane

i would tend to agree (about me - not you!) ... bu..."


no I can see what you mean. If I find one I shall tell you the book's name on the instant. Especially if i can insert cutesy poo into the recommendation somehow


message 25: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday please do!


message 26: by Ashley (new) - added it

Ashley Great review, looking for it on AMAZON now! Lol


Rebecca I agree with you on the whole, but I honestly felt that the "grotesque" menagerie came off as more likable and charming than the "normals" - maybe that's just me! I must admit, I quite liked Berendt's writing in this though. Thanks for a great review, gave me a lot to consider.


message 28: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday great point Becky. I wonder if that is how the author views them as well. hopefully!


drowningmermaid I can only assume this means that the black people in Savannah are not the sort to go around with a swarm of leashed flies.

Although a more reasonable explanation could be that he accepted the unspoken segregation lines and stuck to his own color.


message 30: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday excellent point in that last sentence, dm.


Kandice I totally agree with your review and I couldn't make it past halfway for all the same reasons you mentioned. Thanks for saying it!


message 32: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday 'tis my pleasure! glad you enjoyed the reivew


message 33: by Rand (new) - added it

Rand I agree with you on the point of the lack of blackness in part. However, I suspect that this was a conscious decision on the part of the author as much as the stilted portrayals of homosexual society is—which goes back to this being magazine writing. However, the scene in which Chablis criticizes the black people at the dance did ring true (imo).


message 34: by Rand (new) - added it

Rand Also: after having lived in four different regions of the US, I can attest that people of differing ethnic identities behave and are perceived differently depending upon place. And that on the most superficial level, speech and acts which may be perceived a being "racist" are not necessarily intentionally so.


message 35: by mark (new) - rated it 2 stars

mark monday Rand wrote: "Also: after having lived in four different regions of the US, I can attest that people of differing ethnic identities behave and are perceived differently depending upon place. And that on the most superficial level, speech and acts which may be perceived a being "racist" are not necessarily intentionally so. ..."

I appreciate this point! thanks for making it.


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